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Salsa Articles

Creativity, Style and Salsa

How can I be creative in my dancing? How does SuperMario come up with his incredible moves? Did Eddie Torres invent NY style? What is style? Who creates a style? What does it mean to be creative anyway?

There are no objective answers to the above questions. They all, one way or the other, depend on subjective views on the artistic expression we call salsa, on what we like, and on what we intend by salsa in the first place. But we can still say reasonable things about the matter and make the creative process clearer and possibly easier. What follows are some thoughts of mine, mostly borrowed from my maths background. I am sure all this must have been said already within the art or humanistic literature, and if you are aware of work in this area please let me know, so that I can learn more.

Within the dance community, I have often encountered the widespread assumption that creativity is a process which implies breaking rules and traditions and that a creative mind ‘dances’ beyond rules and expectations. I believe this assumption is incorrect, or at least incomplete so I took the liberty of writing this article.

When dealing with salsa I like to see things from two, apparently contrasting views. On the one hand I am interested in seeing what makes salsa unique and what makes it different from other dances or activities. On the other hand, it is useful to recognize that every human activity shares some common features. To understand salsa better, both views are necessary. Let me take learning salsa as an example; when you are in a class, it is important to focus on salsa’s distinctive features (basic steps, movements, styling etc.). Once outside the class it is worthwhile to remember that whatever you learn (be this maths, yoga or chess) the learning process is the same, so you need regular practice and commitment etc.

I like to consider both these views also when I think of style and creativity. I mention style and creativity together because I believe the two are unavoidably linked.

Suppose Romeo and Juliet, from SalsaRomantica, enter a salsa competition, in which one of the judging criterion is creativity and originality. In the jury there are Eddie Torres, who ‘invented’ NY style, and Edie the ‘SalsaFreak’, who is known for having experimented extensively between styles as well as at the edge of salsa. Romeo and Juliet need to come up with a series of novel turn patterns (but the same could apply also to shines, decorations, whatever). How should they go about it?

One way and maybe the most common, is to start dancing and see whether anything interesting comes up: some sort of unconscious creativity. Another way could be to sit and think of some choreography, come up with some ideas and then develop them possibly on the dance floor (‘conscious’ creativity). This mirrors the different processes with which a jazz or classical musician would approach writing music.

Which ever path they take, Romeo and Juliet will have to carry out two tasks: 1) come up with something really novel and 2) make sure that what they come up with is still salsa i.e. something which is not so bizarre as to look like some different dance altogether. Let me avoid here the problem of deciding what salsa is and let’s pretend that Edie and Eddie are able to judge that. Task (1) (coming up with something new) implies exploring new ideas, combinations, options. Task (2) (making sure it is salsa) implies imposing some constraints, that is enforcing limits on what they can come up with (for example, if Romeo wishes to use a tango step, we may ask ourselves whether that is still salsa or not). Here is where the concept of style and creativity become inevitably intertwined. Creativity is not just about exploring but is exploring within a context; it is stepping outside boundaries, but not too much. It is a tension between breaking boundaries and imposing new ones. Being creative can thus take either or both the following two paths: (1) generating novel ideas within a constraint or (b) breaking the constraints decisively, but then having to redefine what salsa (or a specific salsa style) is.. In both cases, this means moving the boundaries, not necessarily expanding them..

But there is one more component. Whether the result is accepted or not most often depends on whether the ‘public’ accepts the new boundaries. If not the novel idea will be seen as an aberration, a degeneration, a completely new genre or something simply uninteresting. Creativity, style and social acceptance mingle inescapably.

Let’s give some examples. We are back in the mid 90s and Romeo and Juliet dance ‘old style’ Colombian salsa (which does not have XBL). They invent a new turn, it fits into Colombian style, job done. But uninterestingly. Now suppose they invent the XBL. This gives a larger set of options, (XBL with inside turn, rotating XBL, dancing along a line, etc…) so we can say they have widened the boundaries of Colombian salsa. Let’s now suppose that they decide to always initiate and finish a move with a XBL and always dance on a line. Now we can say they have ‘invented’ a new style, in which XBL is a fundamental feature. The first step involved adding an element (XBL), the second step involved adding a constraint (always using a XBL). This is just an example and things do no not necessarily have to follow this path, but it shows that being creative has to do with exploring as much as with defining and constraining.

The entire process can be formalized in a way which (I think) makes it clearer. It is borrowed from maths, where it goes under the fanciful name of ‘configuration space’. As is often the case, fanciful names are clumsy dresses for simple ideas. In this instance the concept is disarmingly simple and very useful. Let me introduce it by another example. Suppose you witness a robbery and you are at a police station trying to make an identikit of the robber. You are given a number of folders. In one folder you have a collection of eye shapes; in another of eyes colors, another one contains noses of different shapes, another one includes mouths, another one hair-styles and so on. To perform the identikit, you need to take one item from each folder and put them together in order to generate a face. The ‘configuration space’ is nothing but the collections of all the faces you could come up with by mixing and matching all items in the folders. How many faces can you come up with? Trillions and trillions, which is why no two people look exactly alike. Are all possible faces ‘realistic’? No. A face with red hair, blue eyes, Asian eye shape, European nose and black skin is not realistic. Genetics imposes constraints on what kind of faces you can see around you. More importantly, we know that blue eyes come most often with European features, very black, straight hair comes most often with brown eyes. There are different ‘styles’ of faces, which characterize different racial roots.

Now we can imagine Romeo and Juliet’s salsa creative effort within the same framework. Suppose you have a number of folders. One contains cards describing different ways to perform a right turn; another contains various way of doing a XBL; another one different hand drops, another one different checks. Romeo and Juliet’s effort to come up with a new figure can be seen as their picking cards from each folders and putting them together in a sequence. Different from the identikit example, they can pick more than one card from each folder (=triple turns) or decide not to take any card from a specific folder (=not using checks) and so on. This is different from the identikit example since you can not find faces with two noses or no jaws. How many figures can they come up with? Trillions and trillions. Will all possible card combinations result in a salsa figure? The answer, as before, is no. There are 2 limitations. One is a physical one, since certain moves or transitions may not be physically possible (4 turns in normal hand hold without releasing the hand hold, for example). Other limitations are imposed by ‘style’.. as I said before, a passage which looks like tango, may not be accepted as a salsa figure; a figure with an endless sequence of XBLs would be classified as ‘boring’ and rejected. Also we know that XBLs come most often with multiple turns, and that Enchufles come most often with DileQueNo.. there are different styles of salsa as there are different styles (racial groups) of faces.

So how can Romeo and Juliet be creative within this view? In several ways:
1) In the most obvious, they will come up with a novel combination of cards taken from the folders. This may be nice, but we can view it as a sort of minor level of creativity since it works within the constraints of what we already know. It is ‘just another move’. Importantly, since the folders contain only salsa items, we can easily expect that mixing cards will naturally look like salsa. Nobody will be surprised, stunned or upset by watching the new sequence.
2) In the next level up, Romeo and Juliet may come up with a new card, for example a new way of performing a check. Now the check folder has one more card. This may seem like a minor variation on point 1 above, but actually it far more powerful. By mixing all existing possible combinations with the new check, we can, in principle, come up with millions of new figures… quite powerful. Nevertheless, we are still within the known boundaries of salsa. Once again no big surprises.
3) The next level is even more powerful: they can come up with a new folder altogether. For example, they may ‘invent’ the ‘copa’ (also called ‘in & out’). They soon realize that the new folder can contain several cards (different copas) which themselves can be combined with all existing combinations and generate trillions of new moves. This considerably widens the salsa boundaries. Depending on how different this folder is, it may or may not be accepted as a new salsa style or a new dance altogether.
4) In the same spirit, they may decide to remove some cards in a folder or remove a certain folder altogether. This will not generate new combinations, but might generate a new style, with fewer combinations available, but a more identifiable structure/look. For example, you do not see Frankie Martinez doing acrobatics or drops; his not using these folders is part of what defines his style.

So what?? How does that help? You do not expect me to write down cards with salsa elements and organize them in folders and then pick from them, right? No, I don’t. Nevertheless, the idea is less absurd and less unfeasible than you may think and actually it is behind my original attempt to come up with a written language to describe salsa figures. The plan was to simplify the creation of new figures by manipulating the symbols. When I have time, in my next, next, next life, I may complete it.

But!!! We live in the information age, right? What about storing the cards as computer instructions and feed them to an animation software? There are already packages designed for dance choreography. And there are tools to write down the cards and feed them to the software. All that is needed is a good programmer with spare time. Actually, the entire crazy idea including creativity is within reach. We already have ways to tell the computer how to create novel ‘things’. And we even have ways to train the computer to recognize what salsa is and what good salsa is (I played with them myself, they do work!). Basically Romeo and Juliet, virtual dancers of the virtual company SalsaRomantica, could already exist and they would probably dance reasonably well.

Remember my statement above, that in creativity constraints count as much as exploring? Here is a profound observation which I throw in quickly since there is no space to expand it. In this mad, hypothetical virtual dancing system, it would be far easier to teach a computer how to create new figures, than how to constrain them within a specified style; and finally it would be even more difficult to teach it to recognize really nice salsa. This says a lot about whether breaking rules or constraints are more important in defining creativity, style and ultimately beauty.

I would love to work on this and build the first virtual (fully autonomous, not choreographed!) salsa dancer. But my next lot of spare time is in my next, next, next, next, next life.

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